What if you could keep a reader guessing who the true villain was for an entire story? Or suddenly change how they feel about a character with a single line?
You can do this by adding a bit of misdirection to your writing. Unfortunately, many authors are unsure of how to write misdirection into their narrative.
To help you master different misdirection techniques, we put together this guide. It’ll help you craft more carefully constructed narratives while maintaining a taught sense of suspense from page to page.
What is misdirection in writing?
Misdirection in writing is a method of strategically drawing a reader’s attention from certain clues that are otherwise in plain sight. This allows the plot to unfold in surprising and unexpected ways. When the reader realizes how important the clue was, it completely changes how they view certain characters and narrative events.
For many writers, it’s an open secret that plenty of readers are like budding detectives. What keeps them turning the page is a burning desire to figure out where the story is going before it’s complete.
With misdirection, you as the author can employ some sleight of hand in how you offer certain bits of information. This shouldn’t be an act of overt misdirection because an astute reader may realize they’re being played. However, subtle psychological misdirection helps to keep things fresh for readers until they get to the big reveal.
Why misdirection is important for writers
Misdirection techniques can help writers adjust the direction or pace of their narrative. Misdirection can also help to artfully slip important details past the audience’s attention to add more impact to the climactic moments of your narrative.
In a word, misdirection techniques help to make your stories more dynamic. When you can make adjustments to the pace or direction of a tale, you can keep your readers guessing what will happen next. This helps build interest among readers and encourages them to keep turning the pages.
Misdirection techniques also allow you to take advantage of the formal psychological mechanisms that govern how your readers will react, especially in fiction. Fiction readers often employ different deductive strategies to try to suss out the potential motive, means, and opportunity for potential killers. This is part of the joy of reading mysteries: trying to solve the case along with the protagonist.
With the right misdirection techniques, you can take advantage of readers’ assumptions and deductions to slide important plot details right by them. By the time the reader realizes the true importance of the plot details you laid out before, it helps to enrich their enjoyment of your writing. As an added bonus, it really encourages them to give it another read!
Which genres benefit the most from misdirection?
While misdirection can be a useful technique in many genres, it’s most relevant when you’re writing mysteries. Even if the plot isn’t structured as a mystery, you can use certain misdirection principles to keep the audience guessing about things like character motivations and key plot points.
The reason misdirection works so well in mystery stories is simple. Those readers-turned-detectives that we mentioned earlier often take pride in figuring “whodunnit” and other major plot points well before the end of the book.
While this can be thrilling in the short term, it’s usually bad for readers and writers alike in the long term. After all, a reader who figures all of the important details out early has no reason to keep turning the page. In addition to causing them to put your book down, this may cause that same reader to avoid your other books, too.
Fortunately, misdirection is all about diverting your audience’s attention from the plot points that are truly important. This means all but the most cunning of your readers will still be very surprised by the end.
The relationship between misdirection and foreshadowing
At first glance, you might think that foreshadowing and misdirection are very different animals. But foreshadowing and misdirection are actually intimately connected.
Foreshadowing is all about planting the right clues for audiences to anticipate later events, while misdirection is all about throwing readers off of the scent so they don’t anticipate the big reveals you have planned for later.
Readers are trained to look for foreshadowing in everything they read. As a writer, you can take advantage of a reader’s underlying psychological mechanisms by faking certain elements of foreshadowing. In other words, when readers expect the narrative to go in one direction based on earlier clues, you can take the story in an entirely different direction instead.
The two are also related because the best acts of misdirection hide in plain sight thanks to foreshadowing. For example, one of the most impressive uses of misdirection in film occurs in The Sixth Sense. Audiences were collectively shocked by the revelation that the character played by Bruce Willis was actually dead. But part of what made that reveal so effective is that it was foreshadowed throughout the entire movie. After all, the plot is driven by a young child who can “see dead people.” Furthermore, the child is the only one who really interacts with Willis. However, since the movie’s plot focuses on Willis helping the child, we focus on what’s happening to him rather than what might be strange about the older character.
Audiences responded well to this twist because it didn’t seem to be artificial or overt misdirection. Instead, all the clues were in front of everybody the entire time. But the plot foreshadowed solving one mystery (why a young boy can see and speak to dead people) in order to misdirect the viewer about a major plot point (one of our characters being dead) which was hidden in plain sight.
Internal misdirection vs. external misdirection
When you decide to add misdirection techniques to your writing, you have two essential styles to choose from: external misdirection and internal misdirection.
External misdirection is the more traditional technique. This is where you as a writer deliberately misdirect the reader in order to give later revelations and events a greater impact. Basically, every good twist ending in literary history worked well because the writer used enough misdirection tricks to throw readers off the scent.
Internal misdirection is simpler: this is when one character is deliberately using misdirection to fool other characters. If the readers know about this misdirection from the beginning, it can help to define the character in question, painting him as devious and cunning.
Sometimes, though, internal misdirection is a bit more difficult to suss out. For example, in George R. R. Martin’s successful A Song of Ice and Fire series, different chapters are narrated by different characters, each of whom is scheming against other characters. This is a great for letting readers get to know the characters, but when there are too many characters who are misdirecting too many other characters, it can be a challenge for the reader to keep track of who’s misdirecting whom.
Using misdirection to change the course of the plot
Previously, we touched on the idea that you can practice misdirection to change the flow of your plot. This is another way you can help your major plot points avoid detection: by directing attention away from one thing and towards another.
Use misdirection to keep readers on their toes
Misdirection is perhaps most effective in mysteries, so if you plan on writing mysteries, it’s important to master misdirection. One way to do so is to learn from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous investigator, Sherlock Holmes.
In Doyle’s story “The Redheaded League,” we see a simultaneous demonstration of external and internal misdirection. In terms of external misdirection, readers share the confusion of Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker who gets invited to join the Red Headed League, a league ostensibly founded by a millionaire with red hair who wants to share his wealth with other redheads. Wilson ends up getting paid to sit in a special office and copy encyclopedia pages for four hours a day. Boring work, but it pays well… until the job suddenly disappears entirely and he turns to Sherlock Holmes to figure out what happened.
Doyle also engages in a bit of passive misdirection by laying out this mystery through the eyes of Wilson himself. As with other Holmes tales, certain important details hide in plain sight. The famous detective eventually figures out that Wilson has been hoodwinked by a man he thought was his humble assistant but turned out to be a nefarious criminal. This helps solve the mystery of why someone running such a scheme would actually pay Wilson anything at all: it was to get him out of the shop for a certain number of hours each day so he could be robbed.
Most of the story is framed via external misdirection. However, Doyle also uses internal misdirection to showcase how Wilson himself was fooled by the man he thought was his assistant. The revelation of this internal misdirection helps change the direction of the story by providing new information and recontextualizing old information. Readers who have been kept guessing can share in the collective thrill of reading how Holmes cracks the case.
How changing the course of the plot keeps readers turning pages
On a more basic level, misdirection techniques help to keep readers turning the pages. This is important because when some readers figure out (or think they’ve figured out) how a story will unfold, they become far less interested in reading the rest of it.
To keep using Doyle as an example, most Sherlock Holmes stories are built on the use of misdirection techniques. Readers understand that certain important clues are going to be presented alongside less important details. In this way, Doyle presents a subtle narrative. He doesn’t have to rely on active misdirection because active misdirection relies on constantly shifting expectations. Instead, he presents all of the details—some more important than others—and challenges readers to figure out the answer before Holmes tells them.
Remember, your readers don’t read in a vacuum. Their emotional responses help determine how engaged they are and whether they stick with your story or not. Good misdirection techniques foster a sense of anticipation and expectation, and this will always keep someone turning the pages, whereas blander writing with few or no twist may leave readers both bored and cold.
Using misdirection to hide plot points in plain sight
Using misdirection in your writing is something of a balancing act. If your big reveals involve new information the reader had no way of knowing about, they’ll feel cheated out of the opportunity to figure out the mystery for themselves. But if your major clues stand out, readers may be disappointed because they can spot the big twists almost right away.
That’s why one of the most important misdirection techniques is hiding important information in plain sight. In many ways, this is like having optical illusions in your writing.
This means instead of concealing an important plot point, you need to draw attention to it. However, to really hide in plain sight, you need to draw attention to the plot point in a way that obscures your real intentions.
To do this, you need to effectively work backward by developing a list of significant details that relate to your mystery element. Next, find ways to subtly insert those details into more basic plot elements. Maybe one character mentions something important as part of a long conversation on a holiday drive. Or your description mentions a particular object in a room full of different things you’re describing.
This kind of misdirection is like using sleight of hand for writers. The important details are in plain sight because you’re not making any effort to hide them. However, one conversational element or object among many blends in as background detail for your plot. Once you reveal the importance of this background detail, it’ll seem like a magical effect because most readers won’t spot your real misdirection efforts until it’s time for the big reveal.
Examples of plot points to hide in plain sight
Still wondering how you can use misdirection to mislead the human mind and make your stories more engaging? Here are some examples of plot points you could hide in plain sight.
Traditionally, misdirection helps authors hide details like who the killer really is. Earlier in your story, you could have the killer come to work running late. When questioned about why he’s tardy, he may mention that he was running some errands in a nearby town. All of this seems very innocuous in the moment, but when later clues point to the murder happening in that town, characters and readers alike will reconsider what errands this character was allegedly running.
Similarly, you might have the killer casually mention a certain allergy when he goes out to lunch with his friends. Later, when the killer is sneezing and coughing, this can help to reveal that he killed someone in their kitchen while they were using the very ingredients he is allergic to.
In these cases, revelations about who the killer is are tied to information revealed to readers earlier in the narrative. Many readers enjoy the fact that misdirection lets authors hide valuable clues in plain sight. As an added bonus, your readers will be likely to scrutinize your future stories with even more care because they never know what will end up being a major clue or not.
How a false trail helps you hide what’s really important
Another popular use of misdirection is creating a false trail. This is when characters and readers alike follow a series of clues that they think is going in the right direction, but is really a red herring. Readers must then puzzle through what the trail might mean before they uncover the truth.
For example, imagine that a character frequently attends a club called “Mickey’s.” When he’s found dead in his apartment with a bloody note reading “Mickey’s,” the investigators naturally begin by checking out the club. Over time, though, they discover Mickey was actually a childhood friend turned rival of the deceased, and the bloody note was encouraging authorities to check out Mickey’s place for stolen items.
In this case, the false trail gives the characters different things to do, and it keeps readers engaged because it hardly feels like misdirection. Instead, they share in the confusion of the investigators and delight in figuring out who really pulled off the murder.
How to use misdirection to hide a character’s true intentions
Whether you’re writing a mystery or not, you may be interested in using misdirection to hide a character’s true intentions. After all, this can do far more than to hide who the culprit is in a murder mystery. It can also serve to re-contextualize different moments throughout the story.
There are different ways to hide character intentions using misdirection. The most popular ways involve orchestrating heel turns, face turns, and plot twists.
Using misdirection to create a heel turn (or face turn)
Believe it or not, the terms “heel turn” and “face turn” come from the world of professional wrestling. In wrestling, there are many complex plots and character dynamics. At times, a character who fans thought was a good guy suddenly breaks bad. This is known as a “heel turn.” Other times, a seemingly-evil character suddenly has a change of heart and becomes good. This is known as a “face turn.”
How do heel turns and face turns relate to misdirection? As a writer, you must deliberately misdirect the reader about the true intentions of the character. For example, a romantic male lead may start out as dashing and smooth, but you write in an eleventh-hour twist that explains how he was only after a rich woman’s inheritance all along. This would be a classic heel turn where a character that seems good reveals themselves to be a villain.
The trick to writing heel turns and face turns is that the sudden twist reveal needs to be surprising, but it also needs to make sense in the context of the character’s previous actions. For example, you could have a chapter where the nefarious male reviews the wealthy woman’s financial details to ostensibly help make sure nobody around her is cheating her out of money. Only after the heel turn will readers realize his true intentions and purpose in examining her finances.
To write a successful heel or face turn, you need to first establish how other characters feel about a particular character. Then, you should give that character certain dialogue and actions that reinforce their existing reputation. Then, at a climactic point, you reveal the big twist about this character and their motivations.
In literature, a great example of this is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (and we’re going to have some spoilers here, so beware). The book alternates between chapters narrated by Nick Dunne and his wife, Amy. When Amy disappears, Nick is the obvious suspect. However, subsequent chapters reveal each character as an unreliable narrator in their own right. We go from seeing Amy as a poor victim potentially killed by her husband to a master of manipulation who set the entire plot in motion—in other words, she performs a heel turn, and that heel turn is the pivot point of the entire book. That twist is one of the reasons the book is so memorable.
Using character-centric misdirection to create memorable plot twists
You don’t necessarily need heel turns or face turns to make for a memorable tale. Instead, you can use character-centric misdirection in order to create memorable plot twists that help the story and its characters resonate with readers.
A great example of this comes from the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. In that story, the second wife of Maxim de Winter feels like she’s always playing second fiddle to her husband’s memory of his first wife, the titular Rebecca. Rebecca died in a boating accident, and the unnamed second wife can tell that her husband is always brooding over her memory.
Eventually, the current wife tells Maxim how sad she is that he’ll never love her the way he loved Rebecca. At this point, Maxim de Winter reveals that Maxim never loved Rebecca. Rather, he hated her!
Du Maurier uses misdirection to make readers think that Maxim is brooding over the memory of a woman he loved. The revelation that he actually hated her forces readers to review many of the events for the first three-quarters of the book and realize the hidden meaning behind each moment. This serves to make an already engrossing story into something unforgettable.
Use misdirection to become a better author
The tips and tricks above will help you learn how to integrate misdirection into your own stories. This, in turn, will make you a stronger writer who can consistently produce memorable narratives.
Ultimately, stories with misdirection are a win/win for readers and writers alike. Readers benefit from engaging stories filled with memorable twists and mysteries. Writers benefit because mastering misdirection encourages them to plan their stories in intensive detail so that each twist has maximum impact.